How do we get information on the level of deep insights across to another person? I’m talking about paradigm shift, the deep changes in the framework assumptions that are part of identity and therefore protected from change. We know it happens -- people “convert,” they “realize,” they “transform.” But most of the time this is because of something they didn’t ask for: war, terrible loss, a shift in the environment that is huge. The really painful experiences seem to be very effective in what is sometimes called “consciousness raising,” which is “seeing” something differently, finally. It was a phrase used a lot when women were trying to get down off their pedestals in the last wave of feminism. New results in George Valliant’s longitudinal study of Harvard men shows that good things can cause change in basic thinking. Several men were “redeemed” by happy marriages. For them the world seemed to change, and -- in fact -- it did, because their happiness made them interact with it differently. Reality is always an interaction. We evoke the world. What we expect is what we get.
As I work with the Alvina Krause notes about teaching acting, I see that many of them are simply descriptions of concepts that need to be internalized and accounts of improvisations or “exercises” that will get the person to “own” the skill. Sometimes they don’t KNOW the skill, can’t even recognize it in others, much less feel it in themselves. The success of teaching/directing the play is determined by the resourcefulness of that lead person in getting the concept across, but it is apparent again and again that explanations in words just don’t do the job. So a person too dependent on words might be asked to act a scene without speaking. Someone wooden might be asked to dance their action. These exercises might appear idiotic and the prospective actors who had previously envisioned acting as an easy way to fame and fortune might balk. If they want the job badly enough, they will persist -- not only growing new skills, but also shifting their paradigm of acting life. Maybe changing their values in the process.
Empathy is a way to shift paradigms or at least stereotypes and stigmas, Social change can result from an effective play or novel that “puts a spin” on prejudice against homosexuals (“Tea and Sympathy”) or cruelty to animals (“Black Beauty”) or slavery (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”) If the stories are only emotional outbursts against unfairness or immorality, they will not be effective, but if they can enlist the empathy of the audience, it is as though they vicariously lived through the experience and were changed by it.
Lesser realizations aimed as loosening up the imagination might result from pretending you’re a tree or an animal as some acting teachers require. But much greater changes might result at a far deeper level if a Gestalt psychologist asked you to sit in a chair across from a second, empty chair, and to talk to an imagined person from the past who haunts you so that you can “see” them and take away their power. Then you pretend you are the person, by changing chairs, and try to respond. With luck insightful people who watch will help process the emotions and convictions that usually come to the surface.
What I am after with my focus on liturgy is the kind of shifts that cause people to surrender old deep cosmic frameworks in order to receive new ones. (The dominance and privilege of Christianity, for instance, given over to a shared understanding of other ways or even returned to the original message of Jesus.) Liturgy can confirm the validity and intensity of commitment to a continuing faith. AND it should also support the state one endures when between those deep frameworks: the state of doubt and seeking. In this limbo the “holding community” is vital so that the daily routine of maintenance can go on getting the person through life. It’s a good time for a retreat. Week-long conferences that really get into the depths of people may take two more weeks for assimilation.
The hardest situation is when someone’s survival has depended upon blocking all new information, when there is simply no energy to spare for processing. Again, a “holding community” or even a “holding person” can help, but often this kind of situation has taught the individual NEVER to let anyone hold them. Never to confide, never to trust, never to expect anything but betrayal and misunderstanding, to always maintain total control. In such situations, trying to model by confiding incidents from one’s own life will backfire into accusations of only being concerned with the listener’s own selfish life. The internalized voices that have provided past protection will shout, “Dependency! Needy! Childish!!” “They’re a drain -- lose ‘em!!” Deep abuse and violation will leave their imprint in the very muscles so the challenged person is aching, suffocating, crushed -- it’s not imagination, it’s not acting, it’s the reality returning.
This is so deep in the mammalian brain that a person who works with animals sometimes comes up against it and has to devise little strategies to build trust and relationship. Usually, this is done by getting into the creature’s mind, using one’s own empathy of what it means to be an abused dog or a terrified horse. Familiarity, reassurance, and quite real physical holding will help. But one can be bitten.
With humans, as a “holding person” gets close, the relationship may trigger a past buried relationship. Freud called this a transference and suggested it usually went back to childhood, an old deep pattern. He also found it useful as a map to the deep structural framework of the identity. He spent less time figuring out how the “holding person’s” resulting transference of their own deep structures might be helpful in diagnosis. The helper may find them hard to manage which is why an analyst needs a training analysis.
In some kinds of theatre, certainly the kind of scripted realistic plays that AK most often directed, these dynamics are at the heart of the tale, embedded in a culture or a situation that exposes inhuman maladaptions or even the impossibility of ever finding a reconciliation of issues. Who can reconcile Oedipus? Why should it be done? But surely everyone would like to reduce the burden of old assumptions and stereotypes so as to find with joy that their actions do indeed respond to their intentions.